About this time last year, we wrote about Venantius Fortunatus’s glorious Passiontide hymn, Pange lingua gloriosi, in the context of a post by Fr. John Hunwicke. Fr. Hunwicke is, we are happy to report, at it again. Last year, he wrote at length about Venantius’s meter, observing that trochaic tetrameter catalectic was the meter of the bawdy songs sung at Roman triumphs. This year, he adds a few observations that are very provocative if you ponder them for a while:
Triumphant, yes, but before that word Venantius uses another: a Greek word, tropaion. This refers to what you did after winning a glorious battle: first you found a tree; then you lopped its branches off; and you clad it with armour stripped from your defeated foes. Clever of Venantius, to see the Cross as a Victory Tree, and neat to think of the diabolical powers as stripped naked in defeat. Next we have a Latin word, Triumph, which refers to the boisterous procession into Rome after a victory: the Triumphator, his face painted red so that he looked like Juppiter, processed in his chariot with his legions following and singing. By the chariot wheels marched the leaders of the defeated enemy; they were facing a decisive end in a dark little cellar on the Capitoline Hill (you’ll remember that Cleopatra didn’t look forward to making her last public appearance in such a way). And what the soldiers chanted was the Triumphant Lay: io triumphe io triumphe. Venantius neatly suggests that we Christans have our own Triumphant Lay: immolatus vicerit; The Sacrificial Victim has won the day. An oxymoron: sacrificial victims usually ended up dead rather than in glory. Or you could call it a paradox; G K Chesterton rightly observed that it’s not easy to be a Christian if you can’t take paradox.
(Emphasis supplied and italics in original.) These three points are well worth meditating upon as we progress toward Good Friday. For our part, we observe that the canticle in the traditional Roman Breviary for Friday Lauds in the second place—said all through Lent and Passiontide—is the Canticle of Habacuc (3:2–19), which begins in Jerome’s Latin, Domine, audivi auditionem tuam. This is, as you may know, a canticle setting forth the terrifying glory of the Lord coming forth for the salvation of His people.